The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Nine Lies About Work by Buckingham and Goodall

So, most business book are boring re-assertions of the same advice and most non fiction books are magazine articles extended to book length, without adding any real content.

Nine lies isn’t. During my reading splurge at the big box bookstore I started taking notes. The book with the most notes was this book, and I’m not even all that interested in business management and leadership. This is a data driven book, and it turns out most of how we manage people in firms is just straight wrong.

Let’s go thru the nine lies.

: People care which company they work for

Turns out it’s all down to the team, the people they work most closely to, and the number of teams they are on. You can work for a shitty company, but if the team is good it’s a great job and you can work for a good company and it the team is bad, it’s a shitty job.

The authors found the following questions predict good teams.

  1. I am enthusiastic about the mission.
  2. I clearly understand what is expected of me.
  3. In my team I am surrounded by people who share my values.
  4. I have the chance to use my strengths every day.
  5. My teammates have my back
  6. I know I will be recognized for excellent work.
  7. I have great confidence in my companies future.
  8. In my work I am always challenged to grow.

Notice that only one of these questions (7) is about the company, though number three can be effected by it. I bolded #4, “I have the chance to use my strengths every day” because it’s important throughout the book, the authors find that playing to people’s strengths rather than trying to shore up their weaknesses and make them all-round good is important.

Trust of the team leader is extremely important: if people don’t trust the leader, they won’t like the job.

All of the questions are framed to give yes or no answers. People are happy when they’re positive, not when they’re ambivalent.

#2: The best plan wins

Nope. Fast feedback on what works and doesn’t from the front, and fast decision loops win. Leaders are always out of touch with actual conditions and can’t make good plans.

This means:

  1. You should share as much info as possible
  2. See what data people find useful
  3. Trust people to make sense of the data, and;
  4. Let the teams make the decisions, not the top leaders, since they’re who has to deliver

Leaders should check in once a week, and ask “what are your priorities?” and “how can I help?”

#3: The best companies cascade goals

Nope, they do the following.

  1. Express values (write ’em on the walls!)
  2. rituals
  3. stories

In other words, they work on shared values almost entirely, they’re about creating a good culture, shared by the teams who do the actual work, and otherwise their job is almost entirely to support teams, not tell teams what to do.

#4: The best people are well-rounded

A strength is something you’re good at and enjoy. If you’re good and don’t enjoy it, it’s an ability. People look forward to using their strengths, enter flow when doing so and and feel fulfillment afterwards.

The best performers are defined by their strengths, not weaknesses and it is a leader’s job to make sure they use their strengths regularly and avoid their weaknesses. The best use of time isn’t making people all-rounded, if someone’s great at something and bad at something else, play to the strength and have another team member cover the weakness.

People learn from success, not from failure, and leaders should seek outcomes not control. Put your best person on it, tell them what you want, don’t tell them how to do it.

(This is how the best managers I ever had worked, as an aside. I remember one boss telling me that she had me doing audits and someone else running physically around the building because I’d be bored doing that job, and the girl doing that had so much energy she’d go stir crazy sitting down and auditing files.)

#5: People need feedback

Positive feedback is about 30X more effective than negative feedback, and negative feedback is 60 times more effective than no feedback.

Didn’t expect that last bit, but apparently people would rather be criticized than ignored. However concentrating on what people do right is vastly more effective. Again, when possible, focus your workers on what they do well and find someone who enjoys what they do badly (which they will dislike doing) to take that off their shoulders.

Further, because of how growth works, you should concentrate on improving strengths. If someone increases 10% every quarter say, 10% improvement in what they’re best at rather than 10% improvement on what they’re worst at means a lot more growth. A person does need to be competent enough at things they hate but must do that they don’t cause a disaster, but beyond that, hit the strengths.

To give positive feedback:

  1. interrupt them when they’re doing great and tell them (use common sense about interruptions)
  2. make up highlight reels of their best work and show them their own excellence (obviously, this can just be a list you talk to them about in a meeting, you don’t have to become a movie-maker)
  3. when praising say what you saw, how it made you feel or what it made you think or realize
  4. remember that praise increase performance more than performance increases praise.

Excellence is not the opposite of failure, fixing mistakes doesn’t create excellence.

Advice tends not to work because we tend to say what worked for us. To give advice ask them what has worked for them in the past on similiar issues.

#6: People can reliably rate other people

Nope, what you find in statistical studies is that their ratings only correlate to their own personality. We don’t see other people, we see ourselves. Groups don’t make this better; increasing the number of people who are bad at rating others doesn’t, in aggregate, turn the ratings good. Everyone is wrong. (There’s a bunch of other statistical stuff here, but what it comes down to is everyone is that there is NO way to measure the performance of knowledge workers.

Generally the best thing to do, counter-intuitive as it is, is have people rate themselves.  When asking others, the questions are:

  1. Who do you plan to promote?
  2. Who do you go to get X done well?
  3. Who do you go to when you need extraordinary results.

This is still subjective information, but it is reliable.

#7: People have potential

Nope. Ratings create the future. If you tell someone they are good, they do good. If you tell them they are bad, they do badly. (Aside: this is true in school, as well, and gifted programs create gifted students more than predict them.)

#8: Work-life balance matters most

Nope. What matters is “love in work.” People who are doing what they love (that might be playing with your kids) have lives they love. It’s not about balance, it’s about doing what you love. If you want both happy and effective workers figure out what they love and get them to more of it.

#9: Leadership is a thing

A leader is someone with followers. Followers follow someone who

  • Makes us feel part of something bigger
  • Values us for who we are
  • Connects us to a mission we believe in
  • Make sclear what is expected
  • Values us for our strengths
  • Who show us teammates will be there for us
  • Who over and over again celebrate our victories
  • Who give us confidence in the future

In other words, a leader is someone who creates feelings in the followers, that’s the function.

Different leaders have different strengths. One long example in the book is Martin Luther King, whose strength was bringing festering problems to a crisis which forced change.

The best leaders are not well rounded, they are extremely idiosyncratic. (Think Steve Jobs.) People love or hate them, but the people who love them really love them. The more idiosyncratic (Gandhi) the more passionate their followers.

We trust leaders when they give us confidence in return.

Because we follow extreme ability, leaders tend to polarize. MLK was hated by more people than loved him. While Gandhi was loved, those who hated him hated him so much they killed him (MLK too.) Jobs was famous for generating extreme responses. You either really wanted to work with him, or you wanted nothing to do with him and considered him a giant jerk.

The book concludes with Truths.

  1. People care what teams they work with
  2. The best intelligence (not plan) wins
  3. The best companies cascade meaning (not plans)
  4. The best people are spiky (not well rounded)
  5. People need attention (not feedback)
  6. People can reliably rate their own experience (they can’t rate others)
  7. People have momentum (not potential)
  8. Love in work matters most (not work-life balance)
  9. We follow spikes (people who are extreme)

Concluding remarks

As I noted at the beginning, most business books are boring and just say the same thing over and over. This one doesn’t, it says most of what we do in large corporations is moronic, which we all know and somehow don’t break out of. (I especially appreciate the hard takedown of 360 reviews by everyone around you, which always seemed like a complete waste of time.)

But the books message goes far beyond work. There’s a message here about how to live life and how to interact with others. I found the advice on, errr, giving advice particularly useful, since I’ve been giving advice mostly wrong (and I knew I was, but didn’t know how to do it better.)

Likewise the celebration of difference, of the people around you mattering more than the larger organization (or society), and of doing what you’re best at resonate hard.

A good read, and a manual to help you avoid the group-think of standard corporate practices.

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Trump Covid Thread


Tech Platform Censorship & The Great QAnon Facebook Purge


  1. GlassHammer

    “Fast feedback on what works and doesn’t from the front, and fast decision loops win.” – Ian

    ^That is how you save yourself from going through one failed project after another. Get someone capable and trustworthy close to the front, get feedback quickly, make small adjustments based on new information, and see if where you are still tracks to where you thought you would be.

    Don’t be afraid to abandon the original plan if facts on the ground prove it to be impossible. Just make a new plan that can handle the reality of the situation.

  2. Willy

    I worked in places where I followed every rule, did my tasks to the best of my abilities, worked to get along with all the different personalities, and cared about the future of that place. I was reasonably open to feedback, and even solicited it for improvement and would adapt accordingly.

    Sometimes these strategies worked, and sometimes they did not work.

    In hindsight, everything depended upon the ethics and sanity of the management. It seems that a new employee’s first and only job is to determine those two things, while camouflaging themselves as a ‘typical’ associate in whatever specific environment, as best as they can ascertain what ‘typical’ is.

    OTOH, an ethical business owner may well consider this book.

  3. anon

    In my experience, the team you work for and your boss will be the two most important factors in whether you will like or hate your job. It does not matter if you are working for the most prestigious corporation in your city or an unheard of non-profit organization. The prestigious company may look good on your resume (as you desperately search for another job) but it will not make you happy to go to work every morning. You will hate your job if you have a bad boss and bad colleagues.

    There are many teams and directors at my company. Every director has a different work style meaning there could be two people working on the same floor for the same company who have very different experiences. One director can make it a priority to end the day at 5PM and not send emails on weekends while another director keeps his workers at the office until 9PM. After COVID, I’ve seen the latter refuse to allow his workers to work from home while my director has allowed us a flexible schedule to work from home or come to the office. It’s like night and day and a person working for the other team has told me that she has been job searching since last year.

    I have also had work experiences where my entire team was made up of jealous backstabbers with a team leader who was oblivious to one team member’s abuse of new employees. I left after less than three years there with my last year at the company mostly spent looking for a new job. They were shocked when they found out that their two most essential workers – myself and a colleague who was fluent in four languages – left within two weeks of each other. We both decided the year before that we were going to leave this toxic work environment. My colleague left for a less prestigious company but he is a lot happier. I have seen a high rate of turnover at some of the most prestigious companies, which would explain why they continue to be run by evil people who thrive in dog eat dog toxic environments.

  4. Dan Lynch

    “I have the chance to use my strengths every day.” Yep. I have always sought jobs that used my training and aptitude, and tried (unsuccessfully) to avoid jobs that I had no aptitude for.

    I have often been pushed toward middle management positions, which I had no aptitude for (I’m a nerdy introvert). At one job I was hired as a process engineer yet assigned to do payrolls, inventory, and purchasing, none of which I had the slightest aptitude for.

    I used to read Peter Drucker as a kid (my dad was a plant manager & had Drucker books in his library). I only remember one thing that Drucker said, something along the lines of “if an employee is not right for a position, then instead of giving him a hard time, move him to position where he is right. If you don’t have such a position, then create one!” God I wished my employers followed that advice.

    Agree with Ian on employee reviews — complete waste of time that mainly served to stress people out and create hard feelings.

    Besides being assigned to misfit positions, my pet peeve at work over the years was the “company culture.” It was all about how you fit into the culture (I rarely fit in). At several companies that meant having beers with coworkers after work. At another company that meant cutting firewood with coworkers on days off. The employees who drank beers and cut firewood were treated better than employees who did not. I did not like that.

    At my last “real” job, my supervisors never once stopped by my cubicle to say “How’s it going? Anything I can assist you with?” Instead our interaction was limited to formal team meetings where they lectured to us like students, or at the dreaded annual performance review. I, on the other hand, made a point to drop by my peers’ cubicles every single day to ask “How’s it going? Anything I can assist you with?”

    When applying for a job, they always ask how much you expect to get paid, and my answer was always the same, that what was important to me that my pay was fair — the same as my peers and more than my subordinates (I’ve had jobs where I was paid less than my subordinates!). I did not care about the absolute amount, as long as it was fair.

    One place I worked paid every worker in a particular job category exactly the same. The only way to get a raise was to move to a different job category or else for the entire workforce to get a bump in pay. Conventional wisdom says that employees need financial incentives to motivate them, yet there were no financial incentives there and worker motivation levels were just the same as any other company I worked for — most people still did the best job they could do simply because they took pride in their work and because their coworkers would look down on them if they didn’t pull their weight. It made me rethink what I thought I knew about capitalism & employee compensation. I have evolved to the point where I pretty much believe every worker in America should be paid exactly the same, with perhaps a small increase for jobs that are particularly dangerous or unpleasant. I guess that would be communism, wouldn’t it?

  5. Tzimisce

    I think many of the comments here identify maybe one of the most universal truisms about a job – you don’t quit a job, you quit a boss. Quitting can even manifest not as a true “quit” but someone just quitting on the job and collecting a paycheck for as long as possible.

  6. Willy

    One boss, who lured me inside as “a friend”, stole my ideas, stole from the company, cheated on her husband on company time, fired good people seemingly for sport, and gossiped me into a position of ‘lightning rod’ for associate ire and scapegoating after she suspected my increasing disloyalty, never quit me after I quit her.

    In other words, she salted the ground behind me and poisoned my prospects long after I quit. I spent far too much time with soul searching, researching and counseling before somebody older and wiser finally told me that I was actually just a regular guy who’d encountered a workplace psychopath.

    My advice is to always be careful how you quit the bad boss. And know that even if you quit gracefully and well, your boss may still be calling you “Sloppy Steve” long after you’ve left. Here’s my current example for the bad boss situation. Many of these acquired nicknames after dismissal.

  7. Chicago Clubs

    one of the most universal truisms about a job – you don’t quit a job, you quit a boss

    Uh, no, that’s not a universal truism at all. I’ve definitely quit a job that absolutely sucked ass, but it wasn’t really my boss’s fault. I didn’t love him, but I certainly didn’t hate him. He was fine. The job itself, however, was the pits. Now, you could argue, I guess, that it was so because of some other “boss” up the chain, I guess, who created the conditions for that job to suck, but that’s not what that “truism” is getting at.

  8. nihil obstet

    We have two things going on. First, there’s the growth of middle management, all the layers between practical decision makers and first line workers. Second, there’s the professionalization of management. Both these factors play into a range of beneficiaries. College and university business schools, graduates of the business schools, specializations in human resources, middle managers with the valued credentials and the need for something actually to do for their paycheck, upper management preening on how many people are in their work responsibilities.

    And all that turns management from a job into a status. What you need to maintain a status is power and ritual rather than results.

  9. Senator-Elect

    There’s something really important in the post and comments. It relates to how we select leaders and hold them accountable. How on earth do some people become and stay bosses? How can they be gotten rid of? Take Trump. Why do people continue to work for him? Take a bad middle manager, as described above. Why did the commenters leave rather than get the boss to leave?

    Watched Paths of Glory recently. There’s a story about authority and hierarchy and bad bosses. It seems that humans are predisposed to not confront the bad apples. Is it just the fear of losing one’s job? Is it because we mostly dislike confrontation? Is it because the hierarchy is too rigid?

    Glad to see the comment about paying everyone the same. It’s clear we need to flatten the wage distribution. But one problem is that many of those advocating for such flattening in theory are making way above the median. Will they really accept most people making as much as them? Obviously, if norms change, they won’t mind at all. But so many feel so entitled to their big paycheques…

  10. Willy

    authority and hierarchy and bad bosses
    There once lived a guy named Balthasar Gracian. Now, how a 17th century Jesuit priest who didn’t make it past 57 wound up being (IMHO) the best ever aphorist about worldly wisdom for the regular guy, is beyond me. Yet somehow he managed. His Art of Worldy Wisdom is cryptic reading but fits in quite well around here with others who’ve read literally thousands of far more modern books and come up with similar conclusions about human nature.

    Firstly, in it he implies that while victories over one’s competition breeds hate, victories over one’s superiors is foolish or fatal. Besides the ‘they have more power than you’ thing, superiors may have more street moxie than you. They may be better cheats, meaning, they may have more weapons, allies and other tools which they can get away with using without detection, than you do. If all other things are equal, they’re more likely to win the war.

    Second, he implies that most people are fools. They prefer to cater to their own emotional welfare, meaning defending themselves psychologically against the knowledge that the world can be a vicious and dangerous place including hunters expert with camouflage. They want/need for their chosen superiors to be worthy of superiority and project qualities or get easily suckered.

    Third, he says that most people are born followers. Authoritarian enablers. If your evil boss is a clever cheater then he’ll likely have an army of foolish followers who’ll attack you on his command.

    I’m sure there’s a lot more (been a while since I read it) but that’s off the top of my head. My evil boss had behaviors similar to Ellen DeGeneres. Kiss up kick down and expert at acting contrite. And then when nobody was looking… watchout. You’d think that Trump would be easier, being so public. But look at all the obfuscators we have just around here.

  11. bruce wilder

    Lot of good observations.

    I have long thought the big lie about business management was that financial incentives work to improve behavior or performance.

    It is dealt with indirectly here: attention and cascading values.

  12. nihil obstet

    There’s been a fair amount of research on effect of financial incentives. In short, it’s found that external incentives work on a very, very simple task. Pound a nail as often as possible, you get more hits on the nail but you can’t care whether it’s driven in straight or doesn’t rip up what you’re pounding it into. At any even minimally complex task, the incentives are counterproductive. They produce what’s incentivized, like number of hits on the nail. The business response has been that they simply haven’t found the right incentives yet. The myth that high pay produces better work justifies the exorbitant upper management loot.

    The people most interested in maintaining the belief that incentives are necessary for good results, the Gates Foundation, set out to prove it. Their large, expensive experiment produced bad results, just like previous experiments. If you read the Forbes article linked to, you will note the writer’s insistence that all the ideas are really good; don’t give up on them just because they don’t work!

    We’ve know this for over a hundred years. In World War I, the first great industrial war, Great Britain decided to produce more armaments by giving bonuses for additional shells. They got more shells. But if you want to aim, fire, and hit something (preferably not your own soldiers), you need shells that have the same firing characteristics. They didn’t get that.

  13. Hugh

    Good business management is meaningless if it is not informed by, and does not perform, a social good.

  14. Hugh

    Also to paraphrase Shakespeare, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the MBAs”.

  15. oldhat

    All of this is covered in knowledge management. This is old news. Americans don\’t invest in KM. China, Russia, Asia, Europe, and Middle Easterners do. They will be far ahead of Americans in business and NGOs in two decades.

  16. GlassHammer

    A common scenario where the right feedback from the front fails to inform the decision makers is “Hidden Goal Conflict”.

    Basically you have an organization with Goals and that are at odds with each other but the conflict between them is hidden/denied by decision makers.

    Everyone at the front and most of the people in the middle know the conflict is real but they cannot resolve it, they can only choose a side (normally the one closest to their paycheck).

    If you are at the front of the information chain or in the middle (these two groups are where 90% of us would be) then you have to be extremely careful with what information you share.

    Having lived through that scenario for a decade I can tell you that your best course of action is to leave. You can’t fix it and you can never be careful enough, it’s a high stress nightmare.

  17. S Brennan

    It’s not complicated, really it’s simple, just hard to do.
    “He was born January 1, 1936, into a Catholic working-class family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He attended St. Lawrence O’Toole primary school, Central Catholic High School (Pittsburgh), Helix High School in La Mesa, California,[citation needed] and earned an AA at San Diego City College in 1955.[3] He attended San Diego State University,[4] graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1959.[5]

    After he started as a grocery bagger at FedMart in 1955, he discovered that he loved the retail business, and was excited by the opportunities at this rapidly growing retailer. At FedMart, he worked his way up to executive vice president in charge of merchandising and operations. He was a vice president of merchandising for Builders Emporium from 1977 to 1978, an executive vice president for the Price Company from 1978 to 1979. From 1979 to 1983, he worked with Sinegal/Chamberlin and Associates, a company that acted as a broker and sales representative for food and non-food products. Together with Seattle retailer Jeff Brotman, he co-founded Costco. From 1983 until his December 31, 2011 retirement, Sinegal served as Costco’s president and CEO.[2] As CEO, Sinegal was well known for traveling to each location every year, to inspect them personally. Sinegal’s innovations made Costco the first “warehouse club” to include fresh food, eye-care clinics, pharmacies, and gas stations in its mix of goods and services.[4]

    Sinegal was a protégé of Sol Price, widely considered to be the “father” of the “warehouse club” concept. Sinegal is known for a benevolent style of management rooted in the belief that employees who are treated well, will in turn, treat/serve customers well. Sinegal, through Costco, provided his employees — at every level of the company, including the stores — compensation and benefits that are much higher than retail industry norms. For example, over 90% of Costco employees qualify for employer-sponsored health insurance; the U.S. retail industry average is just under sixty percent. As a result, Costco has the lowest employee turnover rate in retail.[citation needed]

    In 1993, when growing competition threatened both Price Club and Costco Wholesale, Sinegal was invited to a partial merger. The two companies entered into a partial merger just after Price’s earnings dropped to 40%. The new company, named PriceCostco, Inc., focused heavily on international expansion, opening stores in Mexico, South Korea, and England. Despite best efforts to recover losses, sales continued to drop. Robert Price and Jim Sinegal had different opinions regarding company direction and recovery policies. The breakup was formally announced in 1994. Price’s breakaway company was named as Price Enterprises. Sinegal still continued to manage PriceCostco, Inc.

    In 1997, the name of Sinegal’s company was changed to Costco Wholesale.

    In an interview published in the Houston Chronicle on July 17, 2005, he told Steven Greenhouse that he did not care about Wall Street analysts who had criticized him for putting good treatment of employees and customers ahead of pleasing shareholders. Investors might want higher earnings, but Sinegal stated, “We want to build a company that will still be here 50 and 60 years from now.” A favorite quote attributed to Sinegal, in part about his philosophy on dealing with success, is,

    “You have to take the shit with the sugar.”

    Investors who bought $10,000 of Costco stock in 1992 found it worth $43,564 just ten years later — a return of 354% (15.855%, annually). A 2012 CNBC documentary stated that from 1985 until Sinegal’s retirement, the stock’s value had increased by five thousand percent. Costco’s two highest-sales years to date, were James Sinegal’s final two years as CEO.


    But as you read this bio remember, this guy was born when their were only 128.1 million in the USA; today there are approximately 350 million in the USA. Just a a point of reference, when you look at a map of the USA it seems vast but only about 17% is actually arable, and only 3% constitutes urban areas.

  18. \”apparently people would rather be criticized than ignored\”

    Well, yet another way in which I seem to be a mutant. I\’ve already had enough criticism to last my entire life.

    I don\’t see how #7 is a lie. It seems to me that if you can get someone to do better (whether by rating them or incentivizing them or whatever) then yes, they do have potential.

    Nihil obstet, have you ever heard of Goodhart\’s Law? It says \”when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.\”

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